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'The Booker Prize has made me a secretary'

January 08, 2007 16:14 IST
The Booker Prize has made me a secretary to myself," says novelist Kiran Desai. "But I am not really good at managing myself. I muddle things easily."

She says she is afraid of taking phone calls, and admits she postpones checking her e-mail. "I feel guilty at times but I am all alone handling my affairs and I am overwhelmed with the amount of mail I have been getting," she says.

Neither has she read most of the stories newspapers across the world have run on her. "I don't know what people are talking about me, or writing about me," she says.

I tell her that at the entrance of Columbia University, where she studied creative writing, there is a framed photograph of hers on the wall of an auditorium. A few inches above that is a picture of 2006 Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, who will be lecturing at Columbia.

"I didn't know that, I didn't know that at all!" Kiran says.

With the $90,000 (about Rs 45 lakhs) she gets with the Man Booker Prize for her book The Inheritance of Loss, she can hire a part-time secretary. But that thought has not occurred to her. She hastens to add she hasn't yet got the money; the prize was announced October 10 in London.

Before the Booker, her novel had been sold to 13 countries. "Now, it has been sold to 33, including Vietnam, Thailand and Estonia," she says. "We are expecting it to be sold to more countries."

The prize has also given her the assurance of being able to write for another two or three years without having to think of taking up a job. "Only someone who has struggled to write with hardly any resources can understand my relief," she adds.

Before the Booker, she had been seriously thinking of taking up teaching at a college. Her mother Anita Desai, Kiran's biggest influence, too had taught for several decades mostly at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology while pursuing her literary career.

Columbia had offered Kiran a position a few months ago. But she thinks she now has the luxury of being a full-time writer. "Even then I have to continue to live frugally," she says.

"For the eight years I have been working on The Inheritance of Loss, I have been living very, very carefully, mostly on the advance from the publisher and on some of the money I have saved from my first book Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard," she confesses. "A lot of people were very kind. They went out of their way to help me. For instance, they put me up in their homes."

Image: Kiran Desai with her mother Anita Desai

To cut costs, she lived in India and Mexico. "I also stayed with my mother," she adds. Anita Desai, who retired from MIT several years ago, lives in a modest home in the picturesque town of Cold Spring, about 90 minutes drive from New York City.

"I realised that it takes the whole community to support you," Kiran says laughing.

She has two interviews today, including one for the BBC. She has averaged two per day since the award. She says she won't have reporters at her modest one-room apartment in Brooklyn, a borough of New York. But she did let The New York Times in, I remind her.

"They just would not meet me anywhere," she says with a wry smile. "They were so persistent."

She has been interviewed by reporters from more than 25 countries. "I was pleasantly surprised that Malaysian newspapers were interested in my book," she says. "And then there were reporters from Australia to Italy."

There are times, she says, she can't but help wonder how the book has such a universal appeal. It is a very Indian book, she says, with her characters reacting to colonialism and post colonialism, not to forget globalization. It unfolds against the background of the Gorkhaland agitation in West Bengal. It is also a darker novel than her first. "But I am glad it is resonating with people across the world," she says.

She hardly had any sleep for nearly two days after winning the Booker, thanks to the innumerable interview requests. And before the Booker, for over two weeks she had little rest, as she was attending various events including promoting her book at the Frankfurt Book Festival. But the exhaustion following the Booker was totally something else. "Even as I was going to the airport on my way to Germany, there were reporters in the car," she recalls. "I suddenly felt car sick."

In Leipzig, Germany, she remembers the woman who read from the German translation and introduced her to the audience. "She had thoroughly understood my book," Kiran says. "And then when she met me for the first time, this lovely woman -- an Iranian-German -- surprised me by saying Amar Akbar Anthony! It seems she had seen the film [starring Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor] several times in Iran!"

Despite the exhaustion, Kiran says she has enjoyed many of the interviews. "Just the other day, a Dutch reporter interviewed me, and we talked about the problems of immigrants in his country and in America."

Does she get to be uncomfortable when reporters ask her questions like 'What is your book about?'

With so much demand on Kiran's time, her mother is hoping her daughter "be not eaten alive."

"She is worried I would be too distracted," Kiran says chuckling. "And she is true. The rate I am getting requests for interviews and public appearances, more than eight weeks after the Booker, I think I can go on doing this for a year."

Kiran is surprised that some writers in Nepal have criticised her novel, saying she has shown Nepali immigrants in America in poor light.

"I am criticised for things I haven't done," she says. "Some writers have said I have shown the cook and his son in bad light in the novel." She adds that she did not write these two characters are from Nepal. They are from Uttar Pradesh, she says: "In any event, I don't think they are foolish."

"I was writing about human beings who are fighting for their dignity," she continues. "When I wrote the book I had complete sympathy for the immigrant characters. I was writing about what it means to be an immigrant. I am an immigrant and I have also been struggling, living modestly and working for hours on one single book."

"To write anything serious," she says, "I need to read and reflect. I am not one of those writers who can meticulously map a novel and then sit down to write. For me, the emotional landscape comes without much effort. But it is only when I sit down at a desk and start writing does the story takes shape, begins flowing and characters start doing something."

She is not sure what her next book will be, or how long it will take her to write it.

"I have a feeling," she says, shutting her eyes for a few seconds, "I will hop from place to place as with the Inheritance of Loss. Beyond that, I need to sit at a desk."

Photographs: Paresh Gandhi

Arthur J Pais in New York